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Williams says goodbye, coaching search heats up

Gary Williams retired after 22 basketball seasons at Maryland as new details emerged Friday about the school's efforts to keep him, and athletic department officials moved quickly in the search for his successor.

Maryland's short list includes Arizona coach Sean Miller, a source with knowledge of the process confirmed Friday night. But Maryland was also waiting to hear back from a second candidate — his name was not disclosed — to gauge his interest. The source said it would be incorrect to label Miller as a front-runner, although he was clearly in play.

Maryland is not using a search firm, although an internal panel is expected to be formed by the school to interview top candidates.

Maryland's search promised to be ambitious, befitting a basketball program that school officials and others labeled Friday as "top five" in the nation. Miller, 42, a former Xavier coach and North Carolina State assistant who led the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament's west regional final, quickly attracted the school's interest.

Administrators, boosters, current and former players and students saluted a tearful Williams Friday at a Comcast Center ceremony, while simultaneously hoping for a worthy, established successor.

"This is an unusual market," said former congressman and Maryland basketball star Tom McMillen, a member of the Board of Regents. "The [U.S.] president reads about our games in the newspaper. We ought to have a coach who has a proven record of getting into the Top 10 and into the NCAA tournament. We should not settle for less."

Said athletic director Kevin Anderson: "There's no doubt in this business now that you're measured by the success of your coaches, and football and basketball are very important." The Anderson-led football coaching search ending with Randy Edsall's hiring in January included contacts with such high-profile targets as a two-time former NFL coach whose name was kept private, sources said.

Williams retired as the fifth winningest active coach in Division I with 668 wins, including a school-record 441 at Maryland, his alma mater. University president Wallace Loh and Anderson are behind a proposal to the Board of Trustees to name the basketball court at Comcast Center after Williams.

Williams "walked into a Top 50 job and left it as a top-five job," said Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, a prominent Maryland supporter who attended the ceremony. So did Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, a close Williams friend.

Maryland was so eager to keep Williams that it had developed a multi-year contract extension for him, according to sources close to the athletic department.

But the recently remarried coach, 66, who grappled with retiring, said he wanted to leave basketball while healthy and interested in other unspecified activities outside the sport. "If you leave a little early, it's better than leaving late," said Williams, who sat on a riser positioned on the Comcast Center court.

Wearing a dark business suit, Williams told stories of his career for the crowd and made a few jokes. He seemed in Anderson's words to be "at peace," although his eyes welled with tears and he paused several times to compose himself.

"Monday was when I knew he was certain [he was leaving]," Anderson said after the ceremony. "During the [previous] weekend he and his wife and my wife, we went out to dinner on Saturday. I thought at that time he might have a change of mind."

Williams' players were summoned to a meeting late Thursday afternoon with no inkling of what was about to transpire.

"We just all waited in the lounge, all joking around or whatever," said freshman forward Haukur Palsson. "He comes in. We could all see he was a little emotional. And then he told us the news. After that, it was a lot of crying and him talking and we just listening."

Anderson said Williams had privately made some "great suggestions" to him about the coaching search. But Williams said it wasn't his place to be involved in the search.

Nor does he plan to appear often at Comcast Center, although he will help out Anderson occasionally on special projects.

"I don't want anybody to think I'm going to be a presence here, because the new coach is running the basketball program and he will not see me," Williams said. Then he joked: "I don't know how you get up into those [Comcast Center] suites."

Williams made about $2 million per year, including incentives. With a new coach expected on board soon — there is no formal timeline for the hiring — McMillen said the board of regents should consider exercising additional oversight over such big contracts. "This is a policy that needs to be reviewed," McMillen said.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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